Step Away from the Print Alumni Directory – Once and For All

Our reluctance to let go of printed alumni directories reflects our attitudes toward other out-of-date programming.

Our reluctance to let go of printed alumni directories reflects our attitudes toward other out-of-date programming.

Back in the late 1990s, I worked at a large public research university. We sat through a sales presentation by a vendor of printed alumni directories, and when he left, we said to each other, “OK, but I guess this will be the last printed directory we ever do.” This was the dotcom era, the CD-ROM was the latest and greatest way to store and access large amounts of information, and we believed that before long, the digital wave would submerge the printed alumni “phone book” at last.

Five years later I sat through a presentation by the same sales representative, at a different institution. When the salesman left, we looked at each other and said, “I don’t think so. Let’s just host it on the web.” A year later, Facebook was gaining traction and the phrase “social network” was rising in prominence. Alumni still weren’t ready for a digital-only directory landscape. So eventually we compiled, edited, and printed the directory in-house, as a benefit to dues-paying members of the Alumni Association.

Five years after that—now as Associate VP at another university—I got a call from the same sales rep, who told me the business model had changed. He acknowledged it was hard to get alumni to buy the directory outright, but he told me that they would provide the directory to alumni who contributed an agreed amount to the annual fund. I said, “No thanks.”

And finally, we didn’t do a printed directory.

I was not inundated with complaints from alumni expecting the book to arrive. I did not field a single question from curious alumni, wondering what could possibly have changed. The passing of the printed volume went unnoticed by all except the university staff members, whose time was now free to deliver benefits and services of more relevance and value to more alumni.

This point is critical. The idea of “opportunity cost” in business is important, and it applies here. Simply put, opportunity cost refers to what you give up by forgoing an opportunity to pursue an alternative.

In other words, every minute you spend handling the extensive details required to produce a printed alumni directory is a minute you cannot invest in a project with higher value to your audience and your institution. So even if the directory, for example, is of interest to some alumni, you should ask whether there’s a project of value to even more alumni (or of greater value to the same alumni).

In the past few months, I’ve had discussions with alumni professionals and volunteers at four institutions who are planning to produce another printed alumni directory. Davidson College’s experience with this has been documented on this very blog. This continuation of the alumni directory business surprises me, as I see alumni leaders try to justify the effort they know it will take.

Why am I surprised? After all, the alumni relations landscape is crowded with “traditional” events and programs that institutions hesitate to discontinue. So why not a paper book sent through the mail?

Because today, ubiquitous internet access combines with powerful search to make most information instantly accessible to most people, anywhere in the world at any time. And the information you find online is likely to be more up to date than information captured in a static form at a specific point in the past. Since printed directories routinely take more than one year to initiate, compile, edit, format, publish and distribute, about 15% of the contact data is likely to be wrong by the time you send it to the few alumni who want it.

To learn what value remains in compiling and printing such a book, I asked for input from alumni professionals. Here are some of the responses, with my comments:

“I’m amazed that it’s still a business, but there’s still some money to be made. More complaints, more pain than ever, however.”

Some alumni will always complain. Knowing that you can’t satisfy everyone, and accounting for limits on your resources, you should actively decide who you can satisfy, how, and with what expected outcome.

“Alumni seem to expect it. The book in hand is a more tangible experience.”

Do they really expect it, or do they just “seem” to? Those are two different things – but you can check. You should at least find out how many alumni expect it and which alumni they are. If alumni do expect it, it is because we have trained them to expect it by repeatedly providing it.

“I am building an advancement program with almost 60,000 alumni and no active database. I will take advantage of the directory company collecting current no expense to my program. To be honest, I don't care how many (if any) books they sell.”

Ah, perhaps this is a good use case. Someone starting with “no active database” can find it useful to have a publisher gather data. But is there really “no expense” to your program? Yes, there is no cost to your budget to purchase the books or the service. However, we’ve already seen that there’s the opportunity cost (i.e. everything you cannot do because you’re busy with the directory). There’s also the time, attention and effort that goes into negotiating the contract, ensuring accuracy in the survey instrument, scripting the calls, handling inevitable customer complaints, checking the accuracy of data collection, shepherding the project through your advancement services team, and monitoring the production, distribution and (guaranteed) further complaints from people who were omitted or listed incorrectly (or included, when they had in fact opted out of being listed).

To ensure a quality product, there is absolutely a considerable and real cost.

I emphasize that the “quality product” is not just the printed book. It also comprises customer service and interaction with the publisher’s callers, the printed survey or update form they mail, and most important, the integrity of the data itself. If you’re going to spend a year or more trying to get an upload for your advancement database, you need to be certain that the data you’re adding is correct, and is more accurate than the data you already have in there.

A final comment from a colleague:

“Just did one this past year. It will likely be our last, primarily because our vendor experienced terrible delays (and didn't always share info about them in a timely fashion), which in turn impacted our credibility with the alumni who participated. We did a get a lot of interest in the print directory from our 1960s and 1970s alumni.”

“A lot of interest” perhaps. But how much interest did that team miss out on by spending the effort and time to handle the delays, and to repair the damaged credibility she mentions? And what about the opportunity to engage more effectively across generations who are not so thrilled by the alumni directory?

Before you decide that the printed directory is a prudent investment of your organization’s scarce resources, weigh it against the actual need and ask yourself which of your strategic goals it helps you to achieve. And – as with any existing program or activity that you repeat because “alumni expect it” –  think about what the project will prevent you from doing that could be advancing your mission more effectively.

Andrew Shaindlin

Andy Shaindlin is Vice President at Switchboard.

Interested in working with Andy and the rest of Team Switchboard? Schedule a call.